AHT in the Age of Multi-Experience Customer-Centric Service

Is a business’s average call handle time a true reflection of customer service?

The average call handle time (AHT) has long been used as a yardstick to measure a company’s customer service by. However, as we see from the example below, it’s not necessarily the best, reliable or accurate measurement to go by. This article expands on other measurable alternatives to help your company track its successes and areas of improvement.

February 12, 2018, 10:14 am.

A recorded call within a call center in Stockholm, Sweden.

Agent: Thanks for calling Förenad TelCo*, how can I help you?

Customer: Hi, I am having a problem….. shhh, sweetie, shhhh….

Agent: What’s the problem?

Customer: I’m having a problem with my Internet. It’s….just one second, please. Shhh, baby, mommy’s coming in a minute, shhh.

Agent: What exactly is happening with the Internet?

Customer: I’m sorry, please hold while I get my baby a bottle. <6 minutes later> Thanks for holding. I’m not sure what the issue is. There is a red light flashing on my router and I can’t access any websites.

Agent: Which light is flashing?

Customer: Let me check.  Waaa. Oh, no. Can you hold one more minute while I pick up my baby?

Though this call should have taken no more than 5 minutes, it took a full 30 minutes to gain the customer’s undivided attention in order to resolve a very simple issue. Luckily, for both the agent and the customer, “Förenad TelCo”* is a forward-thinking organization that does not place undue emphasis on average call handle time (AHT) as a KPI.

 *Company name and identifying details have been changed to protect privacy.

The AHT Metric Debate

Average call handle time  is strongly entrenched in the traditional world of customer service. Measuring (and limiting) the length of time an agent spends on each call is seen as an important KPI to ensure efficient and agile call center operations. However, the Harvard Business Review states that AHT is the worst way to measure customer service as it creates an environment where contact center agents de-prioritize complex issues. It also motivates call center agents to keep calls short, even if they could have resolved the inquiry had they invested the time to do so.

For example, in the story above, if the agent would have been concerned about AHT, as soon as he realized the customer was distracted, he may have dispatched a technician in order to cut the call short. This would have resulted in an unnecessary expense for the company and a negative experience for the customer who would have remained without Internet until the technician arrived a few days later.

Shifting Customer Service to an Multi-Experience Approach

Many of today’s customer-centric companies take a multi-experience approach, supporting multiple channels of customer engagement, for example:

  • Email support
  • Automated chatbots
  • Support via live chat
  • Self-service content
  • Communities and forums. 

This shift from the traditional voice-only contact has forced companies to re-examine their approach to average call handle time. While the length of a phone call is relatively straightforward to measure, other channels are more complex. For example, agents on messaging apps can be logged in to multiple cases at the same time, and social media engagement may take place over a series of days.

In addition, when customers are transitioned between channels – such as from email to chat to live visual support – multiple agents often work on the same case, even further complicating the measurement of AHT.  Also, with the advent of self-service channels, it is often the more complex cases that are actually called in to a live agent. These are the issues that will inherently take more time to resolve, resulting in a longer AHT.

AHT alternatives to indicate performance

These two primary reasons have brought AHT under scrutiny recently, challenging it as being a fair performance indicator:

  1. Undue pressure on agents
  2. The irrelevance of the KPI in multi-experience engagements

Other efficiency-based KPIs have been proposed, one being First Response Time (FRT) which measures how quickly an agent responds to the first customer contact. Another is Average Response Time (ART), which determines the average collective length of time it takes for a company to respond to customer inquiries across the board.  

As call centers increasingly adjust their focus to become more customer centric, some pioneering companies have swept AHT aside in favor of satisfaction-based KPIs, such as net promoter score (NPS).

Contact Center KPIs: The Holistic View

Regardless of its accuracy as a customer service metric, most companies and contact centers can’t afford to abandon AHT altogether. After all, a disciplined approach to agents’ time and operational costs is necessary in order to stay in business.

A holistic view of contact center KPIs takes into account both the customer experience and operational efficiencies. This is the answer to achieving the contact center’s goals in an increasingly complex and multi-experience customer service environment.

What should contact center KPIs measure?

KPIs should measure three primary aspects of contact center activity:

  1. The efficiency (AHT and its new alternatives)
  2. The customer experience/satisfaction (NPS, CSAT etc.)
  3. The end result (FCR, technician dispatch rate etc.)

By giving each of these factors a proportional weight in accordance  with the company’s strategy, a holistic KPI emerges. This new KPI enables customer service leadership to direct and inspire agents to take the right action at the right time, without keeping an ever-present eye on the clock.

The holistic approach dictates that the contact center’s efficiency, a positive CX, and a satisfactory end result is what keeps the service running smoothly, the customers loyal and the business thriving in these complex times.

Incorporating AHT into a Holistic Overview 

Traditional KPIs are no longer enough to ensure a culture of service excellence. While average call handle time is still a useful measure for assessing organizational costs and performance, in today’s customer-centric world, companies should re-examine their approach to AHT as a yardstick for efficiency.

Instead, a global approach should be taken to service efficiency by customizing KPIs to include alternatives to the traditional AHT. These should be viewed holistically, alongside KPIs for customer satisfaction and outcomes.   After all, it is the quality of the interactions and the ability to meet customer expectations – not speed – that are the real performance indicators.

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